NEW YORK -- "How you gonna walk past me and not try my honey?" Andrew Cote shouted out at Eliot Spitzer. He didn't expect the line to work. But the former governor, who resigned from office five years ago after being caught up in a call-girl scandal, was drawn in by the Union Square Greenmarket grocer's cry, and purchased a small $20 bottle of the Brooklyn batch from Andrew's NYC Honey, which is collected from rooftop and balcony apiaries around the city.
It was just one more slightly surreal moment in the surreal hour-long first campaign appearance, following Spitzer's late-Sunday announcement that he intends to run for city comptroller.
Spitzer appeared shortly after noon in Manhattan's Union Square, ostensibly to collect signatures to get on the ballot for the September 10 Democratic primary. He was greeted by at least eight satellite news trucks, one cherry-picker, and more than 50 members of the press. They competed for space with each other, shoving and shouting in the sweltering summer heat for a moment of Spitzer's time until sweat poured down their faces and necks and Spitzer was as smeared and dripping as the mob that surrounded him, barking questions. Spitzer gamely stood amid the crushing throng in a navy pin-stripped suit, slowly rotating from camera bank to camera bank and taking queries flung over the elbowing, pawing cameramen to be recorded on devices held aloft by outstretched hand over outstretched hand. If he found the attention overwhelming, he gave no sign, staying on message and futilely declaring, "one more, one more" over and over, before continuing to take questions until the the scrum had traveled from the Union Square subway entrance up the length of the park and up onto lower Broadway. At 18th Street, he finally ducked into a yellow SUV cab and sped away.
Along the way, Spitzer collected a handful of signatures, as well as unexpected but passionate expressions of support from men and women grateful for things he'd done during his time as governor and state attorney general on issues ranging from tobacco sales to prosecuting Wall Street.
Andrew Fine, 45, a real-estate broker (and blogger) from the Upper East Side who works in the Union Square area, was the first person to sign Spitzer's petition to get on the ballot. He said he got wind of the appearance just 15 minutes before Spitzer showed up and managed to shove his way through the crowd to get to Spitzer and his proffered forms. Comptroller is "probably the second most important position in the city. Personally I'd rather he'd have run for mayor ... but I guess he figured this was his opportunity to get back in," said Fine, interviewed after leaving the scrum. "I have absolutely no doubt he should be allowed on the ballot if he fulfills the guidelines."
Fine wasn't bothered by Spitzer's past. "I really don't think that politicians should be judged on their personal lives; they should be judged on how they govern," he said, acknowledging "there is some hypocrisy there because as a D.A. he was prosecuting the crimes that he committed himself."
Charles Ellis, a city employee, was less understanding, declaring, "Oh God, does he really think anyone is going to vote for him?" "I mean, there's quite a difference between sexting and hiring hookers," he said, referring the scandal to drove mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner from Congress, as well as Spitzer's transgressions. "I think it's ridiculous that Spitzer would come in like this. It's grandstanding on his part."
Some citizens shouted words of encouragement over the press at Spitzer -- "We gonna vote for you Eliot! We gonna vote for you! We forgave you!" cried Cleonie Sinclair of Prospect Heights, Brooklyn -- while Joey Boots from the Howard Stern Show catcalled the show's signature "Ba-ba-booey" line at the former governor and demanded of Spitzer if he was still with his wife and if he'd used a condom in his encounters with prostitutes.
Around the mob flowed the naturally occurring scrum of the city. There were men and women in giant red chef's caps, wielding enormous silver-colored forks and spoons in an in-person advertisement for Lucini Italia, a food company. The chess-players in the park were miffed that Spitzer was interrupting their business, and declined to talk to the press unless they got paid. A young man in ripped clothing and the scent of homelessness and liquor angrily shouted at the former governor about why he was allowed to create a scene in the park but the police were always trying to uproot his friends. A woman quietly read another woman's tarot nearby. "A politician is going to say some stuff," a woman in a maxi dress patiently explained to her little boy as they exited the subway and went on their way.
Spitzer said he'd made the decision to run in the "past 48 hours." He declined to say a negative word about the only other candidate in the comptroller's race, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer: "I don't want to say anything about Scott that isn't affirmative and pleasant and upbeat, because that's what politics can be about. So, trust me, I've seen the other side." As to whether Weiner's success in overcoming his history of scandal had influenced his thinking on making a fresh bid for office, Spitzer said it had "none whatsoever."
Though few asked why he'd chosen the post of comptroller as a target for his comeback bid, Spitzer made a reasonably compelling case for why he was seeking the position, whose role is a mystery even to many New Yorkers.
"The comptrollers around the nation own, in aggregate, a vast, a vast share of the shares that exist in the equity markets," said Spitzer. "Those institutional shareholders, through that proxy power, have the capacity to not only control things as easily visible as CEO compensation but more subtly: who is chosen to be on the boards of directors of the companies, what leverage ratios, in fact, the banks decide they want -- which is what led to the cataclysm of 2008.
"Ownership trumps regulation. I've been saying this for years," he continued, explaining why the comptroller's post is so essential. "Ownership is better than regulation or prosecution if you want to effect corporate behavior. Ownership is what resides in shareholders. Shares are controlled by the comptrollers around the nation. That is the huge untapped power that they have and I hope I can do something about that."
"I feel that I have an argument I can make based on what I did as attorney general, what I did in the heat of the sun right now or in the heat of the fire of [when] Wall Street was breathing down my back, saying, 'We have powerful friends. Be careful.' Direct quote. I think I can stand up to those interests. I can stand up for change. That's what I've always done. That's what I intend to do."
Spitzer has his work cut out for him. Sandra Pannone, 27, working at the Blue Mercury store near where Spitzer made his departure, called him "a sleazy, sleazy, sleazy politician" and said she'd never vote for him in a million years.
But he made at least one convert. "Sure I'll vote for him, especially now," said Cote, the honey-merchant. "My vote can be bought for one jar of honey."
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